December 7, 2010KR BlogKR

What Will You Not Be Smelling?

This year, my Thanksgiving dinner was an omelette on a plaintive white plate. Not to fear! I celebrated a more traditional, if belated, Thanksgiving this past weekend. Two of my North American compatriots organized a feast for our British, French, German, Austrian, and Italian friends. I am without a real oven, but I baked two pies in my Little Toaster Oven That Could. Meanwhile, the zealous Thanksgiving hosts befriended a French butcher who called all of his French butcher friends and got his hands on a turkey, fat enough to be mistaken for an American one.

The apartment brimmed with the smells of turkey browning in the oven, mashed potatoes steaming on the stovetop, rosemary and roasted vegetables, stuffing! stuffing! stuffing! It was a Proust’s madeleine moment: the Thanksgiving smells of that capacious apartment, pocketed on Rue de France, no less, conducted me to iterative childhood memories of scrambling down stairs, slipping around the floor in socks, the red tiles of the kitchen when it still had red tiles, the ugly yellow turkey baster in my father’s hands, the kitchen’s dense warmth.

Stuffing! stuffing! stuffing! refers not only to my favorite Thanksgiving dish, but also to the gluttony of that day. Why do we keep eating long after any whisper of hunger has dissipated, after “our taste buds have stopped enjoying the meal”? In a recent article called Why Calories Taste Delicious, Jonah Lehrer writes, “we’re programmed to enjoy calories regardless of their taste: We would still crave McGriddles and mashed potatoes even if these foods tasted like wheat germ and spinach. That’s because a distinct part of gustatory pleasure has nothing to do with our tongues, with the savory and sweet sensations that we detect with our taste buds. Instead, we are delighted by the very calories we’re supposed to resist.”

This garbage-disposal approach to eating parallels the indiscriminate nature of scent. The tenacious emotional power of smell aside, there’s something wanton and unconstrained about smelling. At the farmer’s market this morning, I didn’t choose to smell the intoxicating citrus bursting from piles of oranges; I didn’t choose to smell the dog merde on the other side of the stand; I didn’t choose to smell them together with all the other fruit smells, vegetable smells, fish on ice smells, other people smells, all those tangled scents that characterize this day at the farmer’s market for me.

Or, as William Carlos Williams says better:

Smell

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! What will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?

There’s a photograph of Williams, potentially smelling the shirtless Ezra Pound who stands behind him. I love that poem. Williams’ flowering, thick language mimics the “always indiscriminate, always unashamed” nature of his nose. This is no practice in sparsity, but a full-handed grab of luscious smells and textured words. The poem also conjures the spirit of intellectual curiosity, the unbounded desire to think! know! explore! In “Smell,” though, there’s a big distinction between the body and the mind. That thirsty nose trumps the mind’s rationality.

In the 2006 film The Science of Sleep, the dream-addled protagonist says, “The brain is the most complex thing in the universe, and it’s right behind the nose!” The line speaks to the duality of body and mind. The brain, in all its complexity, its high-functioning linkages and syntheses, contrasts the take-it-all simplicity of the nose. But the brain is behind the nose, and inextricably linked. Maybe our brains are more like our noses than we think.

My students, especially the younger ones, can be hard to manage because of their eagerness. Do you remember being seven years old? It’s not that they’re misbehaved, or have bad intentions, they’re just so vivant, lively. They want to say it all and hear it all and know it all at once. They want, like W.C.W.’s nose, to “have a part in everything.” Their over-enthusiasm can be a nightmare from my perspective at the front of the classroom, with a finger over my mouth and a “shh” sound as constant as it is futile. It’s endearing and amazing, though, that their brains work in this uncontrolled mode. Indeed, it seems definitive of childhood. It’s something that’s lost with age, or at least buried under strata of self-and-society-imposed enclosures.

For the creative sections of the brain, though, it must be beneficial to embrace the wandering and gluttonous nature of a child’s wonder. If on Thanksgiving, I allow myself to eat how I smell (insatiably, unquenchably), I should make sure that, occasionally, I think how I smell, too.